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The Archives. Didn’t Elizabeth do a great job cleaning this place out?

The Needham Congregational Church Archives are tucked into a little room in the basement of the building. There’s a waist-high heavy iron vault by the door, and deep floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with boxes of financial records, land and building blueprints, photographs, bulletins, annual reports, sermons, a wedding dress, and other memorabilia generated in the course of the church’s 155-year history. More boxes containing records of the church’s many capital campaigns are stacked on the floor. And all of it needs to be sorted, catalogued, and preserved.

Sounds daunting right?

Fortunately, before I ever arrived, our pastor’s daughter, Elizabeth had done the bulk of the sorting.  Last summer, she culled through thousands of documents in the little basement room, boxing it up by type and establishing the basic criteria for how the preservation work would be done.

All I have to do was implement her plan. For the most part my job consists of putting bits of paper into plastic sleeves and filing it away in neatly labeled folders.

The task may sound dry, but that little room is a gold mine of great stories. Every time I pop in there to do a bit of filing, I find some fascinating nugget from our church’s history.

My first day I came across this poster from the church’s 1890 Strawberry Festival. (Ok, at 22 x 28 it’s kind of hard to miss.)

Advertising poster for the June 18, 1890 Strawberry Festival held at the Congregational Church in Needham. The crumbling original was glued onto a piece of pink poster board years ago in an effort to stabilize it against the ravages of time.

This wonderful document prompts so many questions.

  • What was the price of ice in 1890, and was it really so high that festival organizers had to reassure attendees that they could still afford to buy the ice cream?
  • How could this festival have been hosted by the Friendly Society in 1890, when the church’s Friendly Society didn’t get going until the mid-1930s?
  • Who are the Peak Sisters? And why would they travel (without their mother no less) all the way from Alaska just to come to Needham, Massachusetts for a festival?
  • And what’s up with that texting shorthand, some 100 years before texting would take off in earnest?

More recently, while filing away the annual reports for 1940-1945, I became fascinated by the twists and turns in church’s relationship with Dr. Mary Cushman, a rather remarkable woman who spent 19 years acting as a medical missionary in West Central Africa in the 1930s and 1940s.

I can’t stand to keep these sorts of stories to myself.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to gather some old photographs, blueprints, and other fundraising memorabilia into an exhibit on the Church’s many capital campaigns over its history. Putting up an exhibit like that is wonderful, time-consuming, and kind of tough on the church walls.

So I started this blog.